The Science Behind Food Addiction

Being addicted to food is a topic that many people joke about. However, the phenomenon of food addiction can also be a serious health hazard that manifests as consistently overeating or habitual binge eating. So what does science have to say about food causing a full-fledged addiction? Below we’ll talk about what leading research has to say on the subject of addicting foods and what are the health risks and causes of addictive cravings.

What Foods Are The Most Addictive?

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When thinking about addictive substances, most people will put illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes at the top of the list, without even giving a second thought to the food they consume on a daily basis. That makes sense, given that “food addiction” is not currently included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification used by mental health professionals in the United States to diagnose addiction. However, perhaps it should be, as there are more than 100 million adults considered obese in the U.S. compared with the country’s 17.6 million alcoholics and one million chronic heroin users. So, is “using” food America’s drug of choice?

Research suggests there are strong similarities between food and drug addictions — and that it might be just as hard for a binger to put down the pizza as it is for a drug addict to avoid the next fix. In fact, one new study points to food addiction as one of the potential causes of the global obesity epidemic.

So when we are talking about being addicted to food, which foods are at the root of this issue?

Added Sugar

This one you could have probably guessed was addictive without us telling you. Anyone who has been hit by an insatiable craving sugar can tell you that sugar is hard to stay away from. So what makes sugar so addictive? Well, sweet foods are highly desirable due to the powerful impact sugar has on the reward system in the brain called the mesolimbic dopamine system. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released by neurons in this system in response to a rewarding event.

Drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines, and nicotine hijack this brain system. Activation of this system leads to intense feelings of reward that can result in cravings and addiction. So drugs and sugar both activate the same reward system in the brain, causing the release of dopamine. This chemical circuit is activated by natural rewards and behaviors that are essential to continuing the species, such as eating tasty, high energy foods, having sex and interacting socially. Activating this system makes you want to carry out the behavior again, as it feels good. This creates a cycle for your brain to crave sugar based on the response to your brain’s powerful reward system. 

The World Health Organization has been cautioning people to reduce their intake of “free sugars” to less than 10 percent of daily calories since 1989, saying that doing so can lower your risk for being obese, overweight, or experiencing tooth decay. “Free sugars” include both the sugars naturally found in honey and fruit juice, and sugars added to food and drinks. On food labels, added sugars include words such as glucose, corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose, as well as many others. You can use the old trick that if the ingredient rhymes with “gross” it’s most likely a type of sugar. 

Processed & Refined Carbs

Carbohydrates are one of your body’s main sources of energy. However, the Western diet is inundated with carbs that are considered simple or refined. Eating refined carb-based foods like bread, noodles, chips, candies, pop, fruit, starches, and juices cause our blood sugar levels to spike, followed by a very abrupt drop. Our bodies perceive this drop as dangerous, causing our adrenal glands to release cortisol, thereby triggering more sugar cravings in a vicious cycle. Feeling light-headed, grumpy, tired, shaky, or ravenously hungry are all indications that you’re riding the blood sugar roller coaster – a ride that can result in hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.

Which Carbs Play A Crucial Role In Your Diet & Health

That’s not to say that all carbs should get a bad rap though. In fact, eating complex carbs in place of simple carbs is a great way for your body to readjust and come back from a food addiction. Unlike simple carbs, complex carbohydrates are digested slowly, causing a gradual rise in blood sugar. They’re usually high in nutrients and fiber, which can help prevent serious diseases, aid weight-loss, and improve your energy levels. In general, “good” carbohydrates have a lower glycemic load and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can be found almost anywhere when shopping in your regular grocery store because they are a cheaper way to sweeten foods. Plus those foods can also be marketed as “diet” or “low sugar” despite the artificial sweeteners they contain. Unfortunately, many sugar-free alternatives are made to taste sweet by the use of chemicals that come with a host of health concerns and can also perpetuate sugar addiction. They might not spike blood sugar, but their sweet taste can still instigate an insulin response. Not only have studies shown that artificial sugars can cause direct damage to the liver, but they are also readily stored as body fat because our bodies are simply not designed to metabolize these foreign chemicals and simply don’t know what to do with them. 


The combination of fat, sugar, and lots of sodium (salt) can make fast food tastier for some people. According to one study, about 90 percent of adults underestimate how much sodium is in their fast-food meals. The study surveyed 993 adults and found that their guesses were six times lower than the actual number (1,292 milligrams). This means sodium estimates were off by more than 1,000 mg. So, although sodium is outright the needling source of an addiction to food it definitely plays a role in making food highly cravable and is very easy to misjudge how much you are eating. 

While diets high in sodium can lead to water retention, which is why you may feel puffy, bloated, or swollen after eating fast food. A diet high in sodium is also dangerous for people with blood pressure conditions. Sodium can elevate blood pressure and put stress on your heart and cardiovascular system.

Negative Impacts Of Food Addiction

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It’s no secret that overeating leads to incredibly adverse side effects including obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes. However, there are also negative impacts of regularly binging food that we might not normally think about. Although the occasional vacation or holiday junk food spree is totally normal, if overeating is habitual then scary health side effects can easily follow. Below are a few of food addiction’s nastiest effects on the body. 

High Sugar Intake & Heart Health

Here’s how to have your most heart-healthy day: Cut the sugar. Recent science has found that a high intake of sugar has been associated with an increase in a type of blood lipid called very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) that has been associated with risk for cardiovascular disease. Sugar may also decrease HDL, the “good” cholesterol that protects against heart problems. Plus, get ready for high blood pressure because insulin resistance may cause hypertension by its effects on the kidney, on the structure and function of arteries, and possibly on centers in the brain that contribute to blood pressure control. 

Sugar’s Toll On The Liver

An unhealthy liver is just one of the many effects of sugar on the body, especially when it’s consumed in large amounts.  This is because fructose is metabolized in the liver, and consuming too much can lead to the production of fat in the liver which can result in a myriad of metabolic issues. About 30 to 40 percent of adults in the U.S. have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and your risk factors include obesity, prediabetes, and high cholesterol. 

How Does Food Addiction Work? 

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Like anything else that occurs within the body, food addiction is a process of a chain biological reaction. So here are a few of the key aspects when it comes to your body’s biological response to creating and having an addiction to food. 

Addictive Food’s Relationship with Stress

Lots of us are emotional eaters, but have you ever wondered if there was a biological reason why people emotionally eat? Well, ongoing stress causes blood levels of the adrenal gland hormone cortisol, excreted near the kidneys, to become consistently elevated. Cortisol is the hormone that promotes hunger and sugar cravings, and likewise, eating sugar can spike cortisol levels. If stress is unrelenting, the adrenal glands may eventually tire out, leading to decreased cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue, which can further trigger sugar cravings and addiction, therefore, creating a vicious emotional eating cycle. 

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How Refined Sugar & Carbs Affect the Brain

Research suggests that refined carbohydrates may also lead to more intense food cravings and overeating. One study published in June 2013 found that these fast-digesting carbs can trigger the same regions of the brain that control cravings and addiction.

In fact, researchers have found eating highly-processed carbohydrates like cakes, cookies, and chips could affect pleasure centers in the brain, leading to serious cravings that might cause people to overeat. The study stated that “beyond reward and craving, this part of the brain is also linked to substance abuse and dependence”. 

Researchers in France agree that the causal link between sugar and illegal drugs doesn’t just make for dramatic headlines. Not only is there truth to it, but they determined the rewards experienced by the brain after consuming sugar are even “more rewarding and attractive” than the effects of cocaine.

Digestive System’s Role In Food Addiction 

Sugar that has been processed and refined spikes our blood sugar levels fast and hard, which is damaging to the blood vessels and can lead to inflammation, dysbiosis (bacterial overgrowth), insulin resistance, and a long list of unfavorable outcomes. Since refined sugars have no real nutritional value, when we eat them, our body craves them more because we are not receiving the nutrients we need from the food we’re eating. This sets up a vicious cycle where we eat more and more of these foods in a subconscious effort to get our nutritional needs met.

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What Can You Do About Being Addicted To Food?

As we’ve talked about, highly addictive foods can be found pretty much everywhere in our modern-day diets. So, it’s not at all abnormal or rare for some to be experiencing an addiction to certain foods. Also, considering the vicious biological cycle of addiction that sugar and highly processed carbs can create it’s no wonder that breaking that overeating habit can be so hard. However, if you are looking into breaking a binge eating cycle it’s important to consult your primary physician to check in on your overall health, while also recognizing that addictive foods and additives exist in abundance in our daily diet. 

What has your experience been like with food addiction? Are there any foods you feel are more addictive than others? Let us know your thoughts down in the comments! 

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Lesley George

Lesley is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
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